Pitt's Pymatuning lab a trove for researchers
By Debra Erdley
Published: Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
When Duke University biologist Steve Nowicki became vice provost and dean of undergraduate education at the North Carolina school, he had one condition:
“I told them, ‘You know I have to go to Pymatuning every May and June,' ” he said, referring to the University of Pittsburgh's Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology.
Nowicki is among a cadre of researchers and students from around the globe who flock to Pymatuning every summer to take advantage of Pitt's facilities in the forest and wetlands surrounding Pymatuning Lake 100 miles north of Pittsburgh.
This week, as scientists and students headed back to school, Pitt broke ground on a $1.2 million, state-of-the-art laboratory that will include facilities for researchers to delve into molecular biology and DNA work.
“It will allow us to have new capacity and have new biology that we haven't had here before,” said Pitt biology professor and Pymatuning lab director Rick Relyea.
The new lab, funded in part with a $350,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, speaks to the recognition of the value of the work and science outreach that goes on there.
In the past 64 years, the facility that began as a primitive, 13-acre biology field station grew to include 360 acres of forest, fields and wetlands that are home to an office complex, library, cabins and dorms to house up to 120, plus five labs. An aging facility was razed this month to make way for a new, 3,600-square-foot lab.
“This isn't a branch campus. Think of this as taking a laboratory from Oakland and putting it down here. ... But we're here to do things we can't do there. We're here because this is where the plants and animals are,” he said.
Relyea and his students focused on amphibians in recent years, specifically frogs. The continuing decline in amphibians worldwide, documented in a Geological Survey study at 3.7 percent per year in the United States, raised questions about whether the creatures, which are extremely sensitive to pollutants, could help flag human health concerns.
In 2010, one year after Relyea's team at Pymatuning found that the once widely used pesticide endosulfan had a lethal, delayed impact on frog tadpoles, the federal agency moved to ban its use.
Another study by Relyea's team in 2012 found that exposure to the weed killer Roundup triggered shape changes in tadpoles. The team's most recent study, published last month, found that wood frogs exposed to insecticides early in life have a higher tolerance for the chemicals later in life.
With each new study that originated at Pymatuning, the lab's reputation grew.
“It has a national reputation. When I give talks about Pymatuning, people know about it,” said Melissa Hughes, a biology professor from the College of Charleston who has been traveling from South Carolina to Pymatuning since the mid-1990s.
Nowicki, who has studied songbirds for 20 years at Pymatuning, said the field station offers tremendous resources. In addition to land the university owns or leases, the place is surrounded by thousands of acres of state park and game lands.
“You have upland forests, old fields and an enormous amount of wetlands. Within a short drive or hike, you can have access to a wonderland for ecological research,” he said.
Pitt partners with eight universities and has hosted researchers from schools across the United States and, recently, from Spain and Portugal.
The partnership will extend further with the construction of the lab, which will be open to K-12 public schools during the fall and winter, when the universities are on hiatus.
“They will have access to facilities students otherwise wouldn't see,” Relyea said.
Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
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